(Changes day of party to Tuesday from Thursday, paragraph 3)
By Michael Flaherty
NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Comedian Martin Short, singer Patti LaBelle, two Harlem choirs and a marching band had already warmed up the crowd who gathered to celebrate the birthday of Blackstone Group’s chief executive.
But the party really got going when British rocker Rod Stewart took the stage, later crooning “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” to birthday boy Stephen Schwarzman and hundreds of guests, according to those who attended.
For Schwarzman, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Blackstone [BG.UL], Tuesday night was indeed his night. The last few years haven’t been so bad either.
The Blackstone Group’s success has brought his net worth to around $2.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He reportedly earned more than $200 million last year.
The over-the-top 60th birthday party highlighted the golden era being enjoyed by Blackstone and other private equity firms, which buy and sell companies.
For some, the party brought back memories of past high times on Wall Street, like the junk bond frenzy led by Michael Milken in the 1980s and the Internet boom in the late 1990s. For others, it was a sign that a buyout bust could be just around the corner.
“It’s the kind of stuff that makes us think that we’re at the top,” said an executive at another large private equity firm, who did not attend the party.
Blackstone is riding high, recently sealing a deal to buy Equity Office Properties Trust EOP.N for $39 billion, which is the largest private equity deal ever if assumed debt is included.
The group is also raising $20 billion for what is expected to be the largest buyout fund ever. And last year they did more than $101.7 billion worth of deals, exluding acquired debt, more than any other buyout firm, according to Dealogic.
Tuesday’s event reportedly cost more than $3 million and the guest list was a “who’s who” in the world of finance, society, and politics.
At Schwarzman’s table were New York Cardinal Edward Egan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Lazard banker Jeffrey Rosen. At another table were the chief executives of major Wall Street banks, including Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, and Bear Stearns, according to guests who attended the event.
Schwarzman’s mother, his two grown children and step-daughter were also there.
Among other party goers were real estate mogul Donald Trump; civil rights lawyer and business leader Vernon Jordan; television journalists Barbara Walters and Charlie Rose; New Jersey governer Jon Corzine; and former New York governor George Pataki.
Several guests commented that they could easily look back in a few years and point to it as the high point of a private equity bubble, according to a person who attended.
What worries buyout firms like Blackstone, which borrow most of the money to finance their deals, is a pullback in the debt markets.
For now, Blackstone and others are enjoying the fun while it lasts.
The guests ate lobster and beef tournedo. A band in tuxedos and red sashes marched through the dinner crowd to kick off the music portion of the night.
AN ‘INTIMATE’ AFFAIR
Two Harlem choirs backed up LaBelle, who sang a song composed by Marvin Hamlisch poking fun at Schwarzman and his riches.
As master of ceremonies, Short gestured to the massive hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory on New York’s Upper East side and joked that Schwarzman had planned to hold the party at his apartment but decided on something more intimate.
Schwarzman lives in a 20-room, $30 million apartment at 740 Park Avenue, a storied address that has housed members of the Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Bouvier, and Chrysler families.
Where his counterparts at other big buyout firms tend to come off as gruff and unapproachable, Schwarzman is the opposite. Standing about five and a half feet tall and fairly fit, Schwarzman is a charmer and a master of schmooze.
In his speech, he paid tribute to his wife Christine and gave a nod to three guests in particular: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne and Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of advertising and marketing company WPP Group. They, like Schwarzman, were born on Valentines Day.